The Evolution of John Tavares

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“If there is somebody in my life who I know hates losing the most, it would have to be Johnny, He brings a great leadership quality on and off the ice . . . Sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s 21. Being on his line, we know how much he wants to win so we all compete hard for every shift.”

 - Matt Moulson, LW, New York Islanders

 During his few years in the NHL, John Tavares has established himself as one of the hockey’s premiere talents, one that consistently strives to better himself and the teammates around him.

Tavares’ journey to the NHL and meteoric rise in status were probably forecasted by scouts and hockey fans alike, but the forward has taken the necessary steps in order to be labeled as one of hockey’s most promising talents. While a number of individuals might have discredited the young pivot because of his lack of size and mediocre skating, Tavares has always been one to take his game to the next level, regardless of the perception surrounding him and his abilities.

The Original “Exceptional” One

John Tavares was granted “exceptional player” status in order to play in the OHL at the age of 14. (Wikimedia)

John Tavares wasn’t a kid that stuck to one sport when he was growing up. Tavares enjoyed playing soccer, lacrosse, and hockey during his teenage years, but his desire to excel in every sport that he participated in was evidenced through his competitive nature. While Tavares’ calling turned out to be the game of hockey, the pivot’s uncle (also named John Tavares) played a role in terms of molding the younger Tavares.

As a youngster, Tavares watched his uncle as he tore up the National Lacrosse League en route to becoming the league’s leading all-time scorer. While Tavares’ parents were extremely instrumental to their son’s success in hockey, the elder John Tavares taught his nephew some invaluable qualities that enabled the young play-maker to want to make those around him better.

Tavares’ eagerness to kickstart his hockey career was apparent after his stints in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League. At the age of fourteen, Tavares petitioned the Ontario Hockey League in order to be eligible for the 2005 OHL Draft and was granted “exceptional player” status by Hockey Canada. Tavares was the first individual to receive such a status and he effectively set a precedent that allowed other players such as Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid to come to the OHL before the age of 15.

After being drafted by the Oshawa Generals in 2005, Tavares put up a 77 point campaign that netted him the OHL and CHL Rookie of the Year honors. His next three seasons proved why he was worthy of early admission into major junior hockey as he recorded three straight seasons where he tallied at least 100 points. Even though Tavares’ point totals decreased as he became a staple in the OHL, the forward improved many aspects of his game with each passing hockey season. By the time Tavares was in his third season with the Oshawa Generals, his skating had become noticeably better, but the chemistry that the pivot developed with line-mates Cal Clutterbuck and Brett MacLean was equally impressive. Not only did Tavares lead by example during his time with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights, his level of play during international tournaments displayed the work ethic that NHL opponents would have to work against when the pivot graduated to the professional level.

While Tavares’ attempts to gain early eligibility for the NHL Entry Draft were unsuccessful, he exercised patience and became the first overall pick at the 2009 NHL Draft. Garth Snow and the New York Islanders gladly selected Tavares with the first overall pick in 2009 and the forward’s evolution as a professional hockey player has not failed to impress over the last three hockey seasons.

Perseverance as a Pro

John Tavares’ rookie season featured many highlights as the pivot finished second in rookie scoring behind Matt Duchene. While Tavares impressed many with his hockey IQ and unselfish nature, fans and scouts also noticed that the forward was still a bit undersized and needed work on his skating. Tavares’ skating was much improved in his final season in the OHL, but there were many times where the young forward’s hockey sense and soft hands made up for his skating and lack of muscle.

As the 2010-2011 NHL season approached, many fans were undoubtedly excited to see the progress that Tavares and company had made. Even though the season started out on a promising note, the Islanders soon found themselves mired in a 14 game losing streak that cost Scott Gordon his job as an NHL head coach. Jack Capuano experienced mixed results as New York’s head coach until a February melee between the Islanders and Penguins lit a fire underneath New York’s belly. While some may have seen the melee as a sign of retribution for a past matchup, the penalty and fight filled game illustrated that younger Islanders such as Blake Comeau and John Tavares would not be left unprotected at the hands of the opposition.

The New York Islanders finished the 2010-2011 NHL season outside of the Eastern Conference playoff bubble, but the team’s struggles were crucial in terms of forging a team chemistry. Tavares’ point totals increased for the ’10-’11 season and the chemistry that the center developed with teammates Matt Moulson and P.A Parenteau grew eerily reminiscent of the way that Tavares, Clutterbuck, and MacLean functioned as members of the Oshawa Generals. More importantly, Tavares’ OHL trends were reversed in the NHL as the center’s point totals have gradually increased, as illustrated below.

In his second and third years as a pro, Tavares’ point totals jumped by 13 and 14 points respectively. While Tavares was nearly a point per game player during the 2011-2012 NHL season, the Islanders still experienced a good amount of trials and tribulations.

After the first few games of the 2011-2012 NHL season, the Isles were once again off to a strong start, and most of it was due to Tavares’ hot hand. However, New York’s hot start was quickly doused as the Islanders embarked on another winless streak that buried the team in the Atlantic Division cellar and once again drew the ire of the fans. Even though the Islanders experienced their fair share of ups and downs during the most recent NHL season, hockey fans were watching a different John Tavares.

The player that was bumped off of the puck and criticized for his sub-par skating during his first two seasons with New York was nowhere to be found. Instead, Tavares’ opponents, fans, and scouts were playing against a stronger and more complete center, one that had refined his skating and increased his strength. Muscling Tavares off of the puck was not so easy any more and this phenomenon was reflected by a 14 point jump in the pivot’s overall point totals. However, if one were to ask Tavares if he would have traded some of his points for wins and a shot at the playoffs, the forward would probably oblige in order to have a shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Psychological Standpoint

When John Tavares signed a six-year, $33 Million contract extension with the New York Islanders that ran through 2018, many

Having Matt Moulson on his wing probably had an influence on Tavares signing a contract extension with the Islanders, especially since the two have forged some great chemistry together. (BridgetDS/Flickr)

probably asked themselves why the young center would make such a decision. After all, success has followed Tavares wherever he has gone, whether it was on the international stage, in the GTHL, or the OHL. Tavares enjoyed the playoffs in three of his four OHL seasons and was no stranger to championship success while he was with the Toronto Marlboros’ bantam team.

When Tavares was drafted by the Islanders in 2009, he probably knew that he was headed to a team that was in the process of rebuilding and stocking young talent. Even though immediate contention for a Stanley Cup was probably not on the forefront of Tavares’ mind, every hockey player dreams of helping their team hoist hockey’s ultimate hardware, and Tavares is not an exception to that desire. Playing on Long Island might not have afforded Tavares an immediate opportunity to contend for the Stanley Cup, but the pivot exercised patience and loyalty when signing his contract extension.

If Tavares felt as though the Islanders were headed in a counterproductive direction, then it would be safe to assume that he would have tested free agency and have found a suitor rather quickly. Since Tavares chose to extend his stay with the Islanders for six years, he illustrated that dedication to a specific cause can override the desire to be appeased instantaneously. Tavares could have chosen to go to a team that was labeled as more of a contender than the Isles, but his desire to make things work in New York represented that the 21 year old center was not one to simply give up when presented with an obstacle.

While the Islanders were probably not content with the way that their 2011-2012 NHL season ended, the 82 game stretch illustrated that John Tavares cannot simply shoulder the offense by himself. Many teams that faced the Islanders during the 2011-2012 NHL season put much effort toward shutting down New York’s first line, a game plan that left New York handicapped on multiple occasions. A lack of secondary scoring certainly did not help the Islanders win many games in the past hockey season, but it demonstrated that Tavares cannot be expected to alleviate every offensive problem.

When one watches Tavares on the ice for the Isles, they notice that the center just does not give up on any play. However, it is impossible to be on the ice for 60 minutes per game for the duration of the regular season. Even though the Isles’ finish in the Eastern Conference cellar was not a desirable outcome for the 2011-2012 NHL season, the lack of scoring outside of New York’s top line illustrated that it is impossible to expect Tavares to produce points every time he hits the ice for a shift. If anything, the Isles’ scoring troubles have given credence to the fact that Tavares is only one individual on a hockey team, one that will need backup in order to get the Islanders back to contention.

Surrounding Tavares with the right talent will take time and patience, and Garth Snow has already demonstrated that he is firmly committed to improving the Islanders with young talent. In a day and age where emerging young athletes aren’t afraid to voice their concerns about management surrounding them with the necessary pieces for contention, Tavares has not interfered with managerial decisions or questioned the direction of the franchise. Instead, the young pivot has honored the “A” sewn on his jersey and has become a vocal presence in the New York locker-room. Tavares may have come to the NHL as a shy teenager, but is now displaying the qualities of a true leader and future captain.

No. 91 Keeps Trending for NYI

John Tavares has undoubtedly improved many aspects of his game since playing in his first game back in 2009-2010.

Tavares has become stronger and more refined as a skater and has improved on virtually every aspect of his game that he can. Not only have Tavares’ point totals increased, but his face-off percentages have gotten much better. When Tavares first came into the NHL in 2009-2010, he recorded a 47.5 face-off percentage, something he immediately improved upon in the following year. Tavares finished the 2010-2011 NHL season with a 52.5 face-off percentage and finished slightly lower in ’11-’12 when he registered a 51.3 percentage.

Some might not put a lot of stock into face-off percentages, but winning face-offs has always been essential to setting up opportunities in the offensive zone. During the 2011-2012 NHL season, Tavares took the fifth most draws behind names such as Patrice Bergeron, Tomas Plekanec, Eric Staal, and Jason Spezza. Tavares won 814 of his 1,586 face-offs and the fact that he was among the league leaders in face-offs taken illustrated just how much the Islanders entrusted the third year forward when it came to winning crucial face-offs.

As New York’s top center, Tavares is showing what it will take to be a center in the Isles’ system, something that prospects such as Ryan Strome will be expected to mirror once they arrive to the NHL. Tavares’ +/- improved during his most recent hockey season and it was evident that the center’s increased strength also helped him with his two-way play. As the seasons have passed, it has become more and more apparent that one must have intuitive play-making abilities and be sound defensively to be a successful center in the Isles’ system.

While pivots such as Frans Nielsen might not be as offensively gifted as Tavares, two-way accountability has been of the utmost importance for Jack Capuano’s Islanders. Josh Bailey’s move to the wing illustrated that the Islanders are putting more stock into centers that can play an all around game rather than relying on pivots that are more one dimensional. Even though Tavares’ game is drastically different from that of any other center currently with the Islanders, he is showing that two-way play is a must if one wants a shot at centering one of the team’s four lines.

Is the Evolution Complete?

John Tavares’ game has evolved since the 2009-2010 season, but there is no reason to believe the center will stop trying to improve. (valorfaerie/Flickr)

While John Tavares has improved in many aspects over the last few years, the 21 year old center will continue to make adjustments as long as he is an NHL player. Tavares’ responsibilities have undoubtedly increased over the last few seasons and his time on the ice per 60 minutes has been a reflection of that greater responsibility. In his rookie season, Tavares’ TOI/60 was 13.39, but during his most recent season that number ballooned to 16.66, an indication that Tavares is being relied on more and more as he gets older and more acclimated to the NHL.

Neil Greenberg chose to omit Tavares from the “Top 25 Under 25″ list because the pivot took many offensive zone draws, played against weaker competition, and never experienced postseason play. Even though Tavares’ Corsi QoC dropped from .782 to .380 in his most recent hockey season, one has to consider the fact that opponents usually focus their efforts on shutting down Tavares’ top line in order to limit the Isles’ scoring chances. While Tavares might get the benefit of having many offensive zone starts, head coach Jack Capuano has to maximize his scoring opportunities by utilizing Tavares when the opponents don’t have their shutdown defenders on the ice.

Tavares might be pitted against weaker competition at times, but there are still signs that suggest that the pivot is doing the necessary work to get better. Tavares’ Corsi On went from -4.15 in his rookie season to 1.84 during the 2011-2012 NHL season, and the statistics have given credence to the fact that the center has been playing better two-way hockey over the last couple of years. Furthermore, Tavares’ Corsi Rel QoC has gradually increased in each of his three seasons in the NHL (.473, .557, .562 respectively) and has illustrated that the pivot isn’t always slotted against the opposition’s weaker options.

While the quality of Tavares’ competition can be thoroughly argued, the fact that the center has matured into an NHL force cannot. One needs to only watch a few shifts with Tavares on the ice before realizing how much the center really spreads out the offense. Not only does Tavares strive to make those around him better, he constantly looks for ways to improve his own game.

Over the last decade, Islanders fans haven’t had a home-grown talent to boast about or compare with the likes of superstars such as Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, or Evgeni Malkin. Even though some might not consider Tavares to be in the same class as Alexander “The Great” or Sid “The Kid”, the center’s work ethic will help him cement his status as one of hockey’s elite talents. Many might look at Tavares’ calm demeanor and not think much of it, but behind the face of a cool and collected 21 year old lies an individual that is meticulous in his craft, one that simply won’t rest until he raises Lord Stanley’s Cup.

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